Brit star Maria Friedman makes U.S. debut

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Oct. 6, 2003 at 4:27 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 (UPI) -- British singing star Maria Friedman is making her American debut with a one-woman show that makes it clear why she has won two Olivier Awards, the London equivalent of Broadway's Tony Awards, for her achievements as a vocalist and actress.

Because no other performer with a reputation of her magnitude has steered clear of New York for so long into his or her career, Friedman is packing them in to the Café Carlyle, one of the city's most fashionable venues for supper club entertainment and the personal playpen of cabaret star Bobby Short.

Friedman will be showcased there in the lovely setting of Marcel Vertes murals through next Saturday.

Fresh from playing the character called Mother in a production of "Ragtime" in London's West End, Friedman is at the peak of her blonde pixie beauty and vocal prowess ranging from brash to intimate. An animated performer, she is able to snare her listeners in a web of amusing small talk about her career, her musical material, and the joys being mother to two small sons.

Dressed simply in a black sheath, Friedman stands between two upright pianos played by Chris Walker and Michael Haslam to deliver a dozen songs that illustrate the diversity of a repertory that ranges from show tunes by Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim to a song that had its origins in a Jewish ghetto in World War II. She credits Sondheim's music for weaning her away from the intention of being a cellist.

"I've tried to craft this show, not put just a lot of songs together," Friedman says before launching into Porter's "I Happen To Like New York," sung with the sincerity of a real convert. "I think of it as rather post-Freudian."

Her most unusual choice of material is "In the Sky," originally written in Yiddish by young male occupant of the ghetto in Vilna in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, for a song competition that it won. She follows it up with "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon," a song from another ghetto, the black Catfish Row neighborhood in Charleston, S.C., that was the setting of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

There are a sprinkling of novelty numbers, none more amusing than Randy Newman's "Short People" and the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick ode to egocentricity, "I'm Gorgeous," which Friedman says was "made for me." On the more serious side are the nostalgic "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern and Jacques Brel's introspective "Play the Song Again."

Friedman says she became hooked on Sondheim when she was taken to hear his "A Little Night Music" in London when she was 14. She pays him tribute with a medley of songs from "Follies" and a terrific rendition of the "Broadway Baby" number from that show. She closes the show with what she calls her "all time favorite,", Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight."

The singer won her first Oliier award for her first one-woman show, "Maria Friedman -- by Special Arrangement," which was recorded on her debut solo album, "Maria Friedman," on the Carlton label. She won her second Olivier as a dramatic singing actress in the role of Fosca in Sondheim's dark romance, "Passion." She also won an Olivier Award nomination for her performance as Liza Elliott in a revival of Kurt Weill's "Lady in the Dark."

She has performed with the London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, London Symphony and in concert halls around the world. She has made numerous recordings, included in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Essentials Album," and is just about to release a recording of her new solo show, "Maria Friedman Live." She has starred in many West End productions such as "Chicago," in which she played Roxie, and her dramatic airings on television have been numerous.

In this critic's opinion, Maria Friedman is ripe to star in a musical on Broadway, the sooner the better.

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